It isn’t uncommon for a website or church bulletin to have an italicized slogan like, “A 1st Century Church In A 21st Century World.” Cool, right?
It’s catchy. It’s fresh. It’s non-confirmative.
In a confused ‘community church’-packed world, where staunch denominationalism is increasingly unfashionable and “I’m okay you’re okay” inter-denominationalism is in vogue, churches of Christ offer a sweet answer: pre-denominationalism. “Let’s just be the simple church that was started by Christ in the first century,” we appeal. Who could fault us for this noble pursuit?
But every now and then, a smart aleck in our midst – thinking he is more clever than he really is – will crudely observe that the 1st century church had problems too, and therefore “we shouldn’t try to be a 1st century church” and leave it at that.
Yes, Copernicus, the 1st century church certainly did have problems. One congregation had a member sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1), while other members started forming denominations (1 Cor. 3:4-5). There were congregations mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 that wrongly tolerated bad doctrine, immorality, and even idolatry. And it was common for some 1st century congregations to allow false teachers in their midst (Jude 3-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-4; Acts 20:29-31). Yes, the early church had problems.
But such an observation needlessly distracts from the real point: Our doctrine should be based entirely on the New Testament (which, we should remember, was written by Christ’s apostles in the 1st century). It is in this sense we are a 1st century church.
We don’t need to be lazy in our pursuit to restore 1st century Christianity. We need to be levelheaded enough to understand what the church of Christ actually is today.
A 2nd Century Church
In a sense, we can’t entirely restore 1st century Christianity, nor should we want to. Christians in the 1st century were greatly disadvantaged compared to Christians today. They did not have the 27 books of the New Testament in a nice leather-bound pocket-size Bible; they merely had the inferior “spiritual gifts” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14. There were some who could prophesy (“Prophecy” is the ability to speak on behalf of God), but the Holy Spirit’s gift of prophecy would cease when God’s Word was entirely communicated through the apostolic writings (1 Cor. 13:8-10; cf. Jas. 1:25). The point of the miraculous indwelling of the Holy Spirit (limited to the 1st century), after all, was to authenticate the Holy Spirit-inspired message of the apostles (Heb. 2:3-4; John 16:13).
Because of this, the church of Christ today will resemble the 2nd century church more than anything else. There are no longer miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit to further authenticate the message of the apostles, because God’s Word is now complete and the apostles are now dead. We merely have the writings of the apostles as our authority. God’s Word has been “once and for all delivered” to us (Jude 3); no further revelation is coming. Like the 2nd century church, we must “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) communicated by the apostles (Acts 2:42). We are to avoid those who teach a contrary doctrine than the apostles (Gal. 1:6-10).
Living In A 21st Century World
Since the New Testament was written nearly two millennia ago, countless religious bodies have come into existence and deviated from the New Testament pattern. False religions and philosophies can only exist by either ignoring the New Testament, perverting the New Testament, or claiming additional revelation after the New Testament. It is the responsibility of all Christians to refute error and return to the simple, flawless doctrine of the apostles.
We must intelligently apply our 1st century Book to the needs of our 21st century world. Doing this successfully requires a robust understanding of God’s Word. We must culturally contextualize the timeless pattern of the New Testament. There is no escaping the fact that we live in 2015; therefore our message must be adapted to 2015’s culture. We no longer live in the 1920’s, 1950’s, or the 1980’s – therefore, we should not preach to these eras.
Following A 1st Century Pattern
When we say we are a “1st century church,” we really mean we are following a pattern of doctrine written by the apostles in the 1st century. When 1st century congregations allowed sin, false doctrine, or apathy to creep into the church, Jesus commanded them to return to the original pattern: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). To be faithful to Christ, we must be dedicated to what His apostles taught (John 17:20-21; Rom. 6:17-18; 1 Cor. 4:6; 2 Tim. 1:13). We cannot afford to alter the apostolic teachings.
“A 2nd Century Church Living In A 21st Century World Following A 1st Century Pattern” isn’t quite as catchy, but it is certainly more accurate. Don’t worry, it isn’t a slogan I will be plastering above my church building entrance or putting on the website. But hopefully, we will remember that our condition most closely resembles the 2nd century church. Will you join me in returning to the New Testament?
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